Nopales are the shoots or pads found on the prickly pear cactus, which are peeled in order to remove the spines. Some say that they have a flavor and slimy texture similar to okra. Also like okra, nopales seem to be an acquired taste, although they are very popular in Mexico and in some Southwestern American food.
Cactus pads can be found in many grocery stores, especially in areas with a large Hispanic population. They can be purchased raw in the produce section, either in bulk or in plastic bags. Nopales may need to be boiled twice to become tender. After the first boiling, the water should be drained, and the cactus should be boiled again in fresh water. The nopales should then be rinsed, cooled, rinsed again, and then dried in a colander.
Another option for those wanting to cook with nopales is to buy them canned. Canned varieties are available diced, cut into strips, seasoned, or unseasoned. The drained nopales can be added to many dishes as a garnish or to salsa. They can also be scrambled with eggs and served with salsa. This dish is called huevos con nopales, or "eggs with nopales." Tacos de nopales, or "cactus tacos," are also very popular in some parts of Mexico.
Nopales are very nutritious, and they are rich in dietary fiber, both soluble and insoluble. They also contain vitamin A, riboflavin, vitamin C, vitamin B6, and vitamin K. In addition, they contain potassium, magnesium, copper, iron, and manganese. They also contain flavonoids, a type of antioxidant. Nopales have no saturated fat or cholesterol, and very little sodium.
A mean that includes nopales can lower the glycemic index of a meal, and they have been used to decrease the level of glucose in diabetics' blood. Pills and powders made from the plant have also become popular, as its health benefits are becoming more widely known. The American Heart Association, for example, is researching the use of nopales to help manage cholesterol levels.
Over 10,000 farmers grow nopales in Mexico. In all, they produce about $150 million US Dollars worth of the cactus shoots every year. They are easy to find raw in outdoor markets in Mexico.